As tough a place as prison can be to live in, it may be even tougher to visit. One mom I know named Louise certainly thinks so. A public school teacher by vocation, she still has to put on her bravest face before trudging up to the sharp front teeth of the penitentiary to see her son – a dance she’s done for more than twenty years now. Unfortunately for Louise, the Big House offers no perks for frequent fliers.
“The thing I hate the most is the way the dog handler jams the drug dog’s nose right between my legs. It’s like I was the criminal. They’re supposed to be public servants – I’m the public – they work for me. But when I walk through that front gate, it’s like I was something they stepped on in the gutter. It’s hard enough to come here. But some of the staff definitely make it harder. Sometimes I think they treat prisoners better than they treat us.”
And sometimes, I think she’s right.
For those whose days are measured in the clawing ennui of the caged life, a visit from family or friends has always been cool water in the desert. When the modern prison got its start in 18th century Europe, visitors were the only way most prisoners got water at all – cool, clean, or otherwise. Sometimes that visitor was a relative; other times a kindly soul from the local church. But ever since crime has walked alongside punishment, there have been those willing to walk beside the punished. Even Cain had a wife. What’s less clear is whether that wife was willing to bring him in an eight ball of heroin.
“The number one way that drugs come into a prison is though visits,” a Deputy Warden once explained to my wife, Mercedes. “And the number one cause of death and violence in prison is drugs. So we have an obligation to do something about that.” Her words came at a time when Ottawa was redoubling its efforts to reduce drug flow in federal prisons. One forward-thinking National Director suggested engaging visitors in that effort, which is how Mercedes, and Louise and her husband Don came to be volunteers in a pilot-project called the “Visitors Advisory Committee.” Me and another con from Prisoner’s Advocacy were invited as observers.
“I agree,” said Don. “And the first thing I’d like to see is a search program for the staff. Let’s see how much dope we can stop at the front door when you guys start using the drug dog and the ion scanner on the guards.” The Deputy Warden crinkled in her chair, like a chip bag in a microwave.
“The term is correctional officers, Mr. Sword.”
“Call them whatever you want, I just want to see what pops out when the guards have to ‘bend over and spread ‘em’ like we do.”
“After all, fair’s fair. And another thing, what’s with this new one-way glass you put in the visiting room office? You guys think you’re the CIA now, or something? What are the guards doing behind that glass that they don’t want us to see? Probably sleeping.”
“CORRECTIONAL. OFFICERS. And this meeting is OVER.” The Deputy Warden stuffed the remaining half of a Canadian Crème donut into her mouth and mashed it like an old-school cigar-chomping football coach. Her eyes lit up like a Jack Nicholson poster. Mercedes glanced over at me and shrugged. If this was a pilot-project, I’d say my mate and her colleagues had just flown into the Bermuda triangle.
In the past two years, this column has begun many a sentence with the words “Prison is like…” The truth is that prison isn’t like anything. Prison just is. It’s a piece of dirt with a fence around it that brings many types of people together for a lot of different reasons. Some are here because they got caught. Others come because they didn’t, and want to pay their dues. Some are here for a paycheque, some want to change the world, and some just show up to see what can be salvaged. But they all have one thing in common: They are so much more than the ground they meet on. Even if sometimes they lose sight of that.
“Did you hear about Mr. Sword?” Warren asked me. Warren was the other prisoner from Advocacy who had sat in on the pilot-project with me the week before.
“Seems he showed up this morning at the front gate in his car – with all the windows blocked out in tinfoil. He just sat there with the doors locked, revving the engine.”
“On the week of the 9/11 anniversary. Nice touch.”
“Yeah,” said Warren, “but I don’t think that was his point. Apparently he was protesting the new one-way glass in visits area. The Deputy Warden called in the SWAT team, and the guard on my floor said she was out front yelling for them to shoot him.”
It makes you wonder what the headline for that would have been.